Nuclear Material Consolidation Schedule Lags

Alex Bollfrass

Despite nearly two years of deliberations, the Department of Energy lags in presenting plans for the consolidation and disposal of fissile and other high-risk nuclear material, congressional investigators have concluded.

The Energy Department currently intends to save security costs by halving the number of facilities storing significant quantities of fissile matter, referred to as special nuclear material. However, this objective may change to conform to the as-of-yet-unveiled Complex Transformation program, an effort to refashion the nuclear weapons complex.

In a report released Oct. 4, U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) researchers found that the body charged with planning the consolidation and reduction, the Nuclear Materials Disposition and Consolidation Coordination Committee, has only drafted two of eight implementation plans after almost two years of work. All eight plans are not likely to be completed by the Energy Department’s own deadline of December 2008.

Each implementation plan either aims to pool material from various sites or to rid an individual site of a particular material. It consists of a description of the problems created by the status quo and a list of cost-evaluated alternatives with a recommended course of action.

The GAO report cites the committee’s frequent leadership turnover and unresolved issues of bureaucratic authority and decision-making as the chief reasons for the delay.

The current chair of the committee, Charles Anderson, responded to GAO’s criticism in a Sept. 11 letter charging that the report “lack[ed] balance and objectivity” for its failure to sufficiently recognize progress in consolidating material within sites. He did agree in principle with the “recommendations to identify consolidation and disposition plan approval authority(ies), clarify organizational roles and responsibilities, and establish performance measures.”

The report added to congressional impatience with the Energy Department, which in 2005 promised to present finalized plans within a year or two. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a Nov. 4 statement, “We’re just trying to get to the point where [the Energy Department] has a plan. Two years have passed by since we asked about a plan, and still no plan.”

The two implementation plans that have been drafted, for consolidating and disposing of plutonium-239 and for disposing of uranium-233, are judged by the GAO’s investigators as too light on detail to ensure their execution according to schedule and within budget.

The plan for plutonium-239, a fissile material used in nuclear warheads, envisions consolidating material to Savannah River Site in South Carolina from the Hanford Site and the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories. The uranium-233 plan calls for stabilizing the weapons-usable material by blending it with other uranium isotopes and moving it for storage to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee or to radioactive waste sites.

The remaining six implementation plans remove special nuclear material from various sites, in whole or in part, reducing from 10 to five the number of facilities hosting material requiring the highest level of security. Such restructuring would match the now-defunct objective of restricting the use of special nuclear material in large quantities at production and test sites, as well as not employing national laboratories for production of such material. This was envisioned in the Energy Department’s Complex 2030, an initiative to refashion the nuclear weapons complex that has since been derailed by congressional opposition.

The Energy Department’s replacement proposal, Complex Transformation, expected to be released publicly in December, scraps the provision to build a new plutonium pit production facility for nuclear weapons in favor of locating pit manufacturing in an existing facility. According to press reports, the existing facility allegedly favored by the department is Los Alamos National Laboratory.